Car reviews - Suzuki - Vitara - S Turbo 4WD
Price, ease of driving, low fuel economy, cabin flexibility, engineering quality
Room for improvement
Tinny door-close noise, hard plastics in cabin, front spoiler constricts off-roading
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11 Jul 2016
By NEIL DOWLING
Price and equipment
CONFUSION reigns over the duplicity of the Vitara name. One – the Grand Vitara – is a surprisingly capable off-road wagon with a low-range gearbox, ladder chassis and longitudal engine mounting. The other is tested here.
In its latest guise, the Vitara borrows a lot from the passenger-car Suzuki empire, most notably the transverse engine mount that immediately stamps it as a car-based wagon.
Depending on your view – and that’s either good or bad – the fact is that this is the same path trodden by its competitors as a single platform is multi-tasked to embrace a string of model designations.
Suzuki markets its Vitara as either a front-wheel drive or all-wheel-drive wagon, using the same body and buyers will find that except for some additional features, cabin offerings are similar.
It hasn’t been a stretch for Suzuki to use this new, monocoque body seamlessly replicated into a range of variants.
The entry-level 2WD starts at $21,990 plus on-road costs, rising to $32,990 plus costs for the most basic (and it’s not really) all-wheel drive model, lifting high to the single diesel model.
So what do you get for your $32,990 plus on-road costs for the AWD turbo-petrol model tested here? Actually, quite a lot. The problem isn’t with what Suzuki puts on the plate but what the competitors serve up on theirs.
The Vitara S Turbo comes out of the block with a 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a traveler hairdryer-sized turbocharger that has the ignominy of being stamped by the factory with a ‘Boosterjet’ engine label.
The drivetrain is a six-speed automatic aimed at the front wheels, with an on-demand link to the rear axles. Most buyers will treat this purely as an automatic and be possibly dismissive of the all-wheel drive function, though, in saying that, the go-to “auto” mode will automatically give four-wheel traction should things go pear-shaped.
Suzuki is one of the world’s best engineers, with a rigid and almost calculating sense of precision. Its drivetrains last a long time before pushing up their daisies and though some owners complain about high Suzuki service costs, there’s a good reason for that.
It is to Japan’s automotive technology barometer what Honda was in the late 1970s. And yet Suzuki is wrought by a sense of such introversion that it rarely announces its ability.
For those that know, it’s a smart car-maker. For those that do not, I think Suzuki probably does not care.
That shows in its styling. The Vitara is such a conservative wagon that it melds into the morning traffic like the dotted white lines of lane separation.
There is some carry over lines from the Grand Vitara (the proper 4WD wagon) and it’s easy to see where the corporate styling pen has been weighed to ensure a subtle link to anything else wearing the ‘S’ grille badge.
But it works. The doors open wide and entry and egress from all points is good.
There’s a high hip point for the less elastic amongst us. The rear boot is wide and high.
The safety kit is sufficient, yet not overwhelming. We guess Suzuki could start stretching its clever tech division and come up with a few more aids – autonomous emergency braking specifically.
Standard gear includes hill-descent control, keyless entry and start, 17-inch alloy wheels, front and rear parking sensors, LED headlights, auto-levelling automatic headlights, automatic wipers, electric folding mirrors, leather seats with suede inserts, and a sunglasses holder.
Buyers will have to look at what Suzuki offers on a piece of paper, compared with its rivals. A few are listed below.
We’d warn that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. Suzuki is Japan’s version of a minimalistic European car-maker, like Fiat, for example.
Look at what is on offer and drive it before making a decision. We just kept going back to the Vitara because though it lacked a lot of gloss of some other Japanese makers, there’s simplicity about the wagon that doesn’t make owning, and driving, a chore.
The S Turbo is one of four Vitara variants that share a monocoque body, transverse engine, the option of all-wheel drive (AWD) via a power take-off from the front transaxle housing, and car-like suspension and steering.
It is nothing like the Grand Vitara that falls into the more serious end of the 4WD market. Rather, the Vitara is an SUV and competes with a voracious list of hungry rivals, many of which do not even have an AWD option.
To meet the demands of SUV buyers, the Vitara’s cabin is decidedly passenger car. The decor is attractive, subtle in its contours and ergonomic.
Four circular dash vents with twist shutters give good air flow though there’s no vents provided in the rear.
The use of soft-touch materials in the dashboard – a contemporary signature of quality – is absent which is at odds with the high level of other materials, including the leather seats.
In its favour, the dashboard holds a 7.0-inch touchscreen colour monitor, sufficient personal storage spaces, a bottle holder in each door and two cupholders up front, and part leather and synthetic suede seats with red stitching.
The monitor screen is divided into four functions – telephone, radio, satellite navigation and connectivity for Apple CarPlay – and vehicle settings. Settings also include the main switch for the cruise control – a trap for new players and an annoying and unnecessary override.
Better news is the sat-nav that comes from Garmin and has bright, easy-to-read graphics. The monitor also becomes the reverse camera that is equally as clear and crisp, even at night.
The radio offers reasonable sound quality through six speakers and connection to a mobile phone is dead easy.
Seat comfort is good in the front, fair in the rear. There is plenty of leg and headroom and a baby seat fits quickly and easy into the clips.
Boot space is liberal for the Vitara’s class and seems better than most because of the square cut of the lift-up tailgate’s opening. The Vitara comes standard with a luggage cover and there’s a luggage board that adds another layer to the floor.
It may be possible to replace the space-saver spare wheel with a full-size wheel when the board is in the upper level.
On the lower level, the boot holds 375 litres, rising to 1120 litres when the split-fold seats are dropped. Unfortunately, the seats will not fold perfectly flat.
Engine and transmission
A philosophy of downsizing and turbocharging has given Suzuki the chance to present a modest 1.4-litre engine capacity that is both fuel efficient and sparkling in performance.
Only the Fiat 500X has an engine of similar size, also using turbocharging, which is in contrast with rivals including the 2.0-litre Subaru XV, Peugeot 4008 and Mitsubishi ASX.
However, turbochargers are not cheap and to market a vehicle in the hot sub-$35,000 SUV bracket, some things – such as cabin trim as discussed above – have to be compromised.
Suzuki is no slouch when it comes to making durable drivetrains. It’s also got the smarts by adapting existing engines to multi-task in other products.
The 1.4-litre is the same basic unit in the Swift, where without the turbocharger it cranks 70kW/130Nm.
The tiny turbo unit – emblazoned with a slightly cringe-worthy BoosterJet logo – ups that output to a healthy 103kW at 5500rpm and 220Nm of torque at a flat 1500rpm through to 4000rpm.
That broad torque output looks on paper as effective as it does on the road.
The engine delivers a linear, smooth and efficient output that matches well with the six-speed dual-clutch box.
There is virtually no lag on spooling up and no breathlessness at the top end.
It is so much better than the entry-level Vitara’s 1.6-litre aspirated engine that unless you are price-stretched, the turbo should be the sole petrol choice.
The transmission is a six-speed dual-clutch transmission – no manual is available – that drives to an on-demand drive system dubbed Allgrip by Suzuki.
It is a front-drive layout with rear drive selected automatically.
Do not be fooled by the Suzuki badge and the Vitara nameplate. This is an SUV that has some limited off-road ability and is in no way as capable as its bigger Grand Vitara sibling.
There is a twist dial for the drive select that does give a hint of some leaning towards dirt roads. This selects Snow or Sport and has a centre button for Auto – the latter the default mode that maintains front-wheel drive and only brings the rear wheels into play when it detects a loss of traction.
For more slippery stuff there is a Lock button as well. Engage this by selecting Snow and then pressing the Lock for a low-speed 50:50 split of power to front and rear wheels.
The S Turbo and the RT-X diesel were tested over the same terrain and though the diesel performed slightly better because its low-end torque made it more suitable to crawling over obstacles, the petrol version did not disappoint.
On the road the petrol is a sparkling performer with a quiet engine and impressive fuel economy. Suzuki claims 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres for the S Turbo but the test route achieved a solid 6.8L/100km, including some freeway, dirt and mainly suburban driving. That’s impressive.
Ride and handling
This is no sportscar but it shares a lot of platform components with the Swift, itself a neat handling small hatch.
The Vitara has a welcome supple ride that will suit urban users and has good front seat support so the overall package is pleasing and on par with the Swift.
Suspension is MacPherson struts at the front that have heavy-duty components and geometry to suit dual roles of dirt and bitumen.
The rear has a torsion beam, basically a flattened pipe between the wheels, held up by coil springs and with independent drive shafts. It is a simple and effective layout that is also compact to maximise boot capacity.
The Vitara is 100mm shorter in the wheelbase than the mechanically related S-Cross.
To suit its off-road bent, the Vitara has a respectable 185mm ground clearance though its front approach angle is too acute at 18-degrees to make it suitable for anything more severe than modest road corrugations.
On gravel roads the handling is surprisingly good, a product of the all-wheel drive engaging when slip is detected up front and when the electronic stability control (ESC) senses undesirable yaw and pitch.
Safety and servicing
Suzuki has a capped-price service program that will cost $1540 for three years.
The program lasts for five years. The downside is that it has a six-monthly service schedule that could become tiresome for owners.
The warranty is an industry standard of three years or 100,000 kilometres, and there is no roadside assist program.
Standard safety equipment includes electronic stability control with brakeforce distribution, brake assistance, seven airbags, reversing camera and front and rear park sensors.
For off-road work there is also a hill holder and hill descent system. It is let down by a space-saver spare wheel.
It has not yet been tested by ANCAP.
Glass’s Guide estimates that the S Turbo will retain 52 per cent of its purchase price after three years. Other Vitara variants are rated at 50 per cent, indicating future buyer interest in this turbocharged-petrol model.
Suzuki represents a quality, good value SUV in a congested market segment. It wins on engineering and – in the S Turbo and diesel models – fun driving dynamics but may not have the baubles and gloss of some rivals, particularly in interior trim.
Unfortunately this can lose it sales. For those who know the brand, the Vitara is a versatile and enjoyable wagon with excellent fuel economy and modest off-road ability.
The S Turbo AWD is the pick of its petrol siblings (the diesel is also a gem) but, for a $4000 discount, can be enjoyed as a front-drive variant.
Subaru XV 2.0i S from $35,290 plus on-road costs
Successful small Subaru is a popular choice with an accent on safety – it’s the only permanent AWD here – and build quality. It has a 110kW/196Nm 2.0-litre engine claimed to average 7.0 L/100km. Features include sunroof, sat-nav, leather seats and 17-inch alloy wheels. The boot space is 310-741 litres.
Fiat 500X Pop Star from $33,000 plus on-road costs
Newcomer is based on the Jeep Renegade but goes its own way with body styling. It has a 103kW/230Nm 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine and a dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission. Fiat claims 5.7 L/100km. Features include sat-nav and 17-inch alloys. The four-door has a 346 litre boot.
Peugeot 4008 Active from $33,490 plus on-road costs
This is based on the Mitsubishi ASX and shares much of the components, though Peugeot has designed a new interior and body trim. It has a 110kW/197Nm 2.0-litre aspirated petrol engine driving through a CVT automatic and claims 7.8 L/100km. Boot space is 384-1193 litres. Features include 16-inch alloys with a full-size spare, and cloth trim and seven airbags.
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